In Defense of Destruction: How Addiction Propels Natural Cycles of Death and Renewal in William S. Burroughs' Junky
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William Burroughs’ novel Junky is humorous and meticulously detailed in portraying its protagonist’s spiral to rock bottom. However, within the otherwise dispassionate narrative, readers encounter an undercurrent of pure need, with characters and narrator/protagonist Bill Lee at once repelled and empowered by the powers of destruction that junk has over their lives. The book is structured as a descending spiral, ever-inward and downward, as Lee wanders from New York to Mexico: one instance of the text’s overarching depiction of a journey from stability to destruction and back again. Burroughs portrays human need as the propellant of this cycle, a catalyst that causes individuals to move because of their own suffering. In attempting to keep himself stable and well, for instance, Lee must always have more junk: his need for junk is what drives him to the very ends of his resources, and propels him out of the phase of stability. When he runs out of junk, withdrawal sickness sets in, signifying the death of his addict self and rebirth into a new life. Just as quickly, his addiction may be reborn in subsequent chapters.
In exploring this text, I document both the forms and functions of this cycle. The protagonist’s environment, for example, is analogous to his mindset, moving him from an iconic image of stability (suburban Midwestern U.S.) to a jewel of chaos, Mexico. Bill Lee equates his childhood home in the Midwest with atrophy, and to end the stagnation he engages in violent lifestyles that, like pruning a plant, initiate growth through destruction. Lee finally escapes to Mexico, fleeing a court case: agents of stability and law in the U.S. After he reaches Mexico, he begins to atrophy again, with “nothing to do" and “no place to go,” since his life is no longer driven by his junk habit (117). Soon after this, driven by a need for junk imposed on him by his environment, Lee is back in the cycle of destruction.
“Junk” serves as a signifier for destruction in Junky, a metaphor for human needs which propel the larger cycles in which the text operates. According to Burroughs, kicking junk is a violent process that causes the death of junk-dependent cells. As the text suggests, the entropy that follows is a kind of rotting away as part of a natural cycle of matter. The junk always runs out, and the body goes through the violence of junksickness before renewing itself, which is a "suffering of the cells alone” (Junky 3). The effect of this suffering appears on the face of Lee associate Jack, who exhibits a “conscious ego that look[s] out of the glazed, alert-calm hoodlum eyes—would have nothing to do with the suffering of his rejected other-self” (3). Junk-sickness creates an undercurrent of violence at the cell level, and all the while Jack is helping Bill Lee to sell a “Tommy gun” (1), invoking a violence beyond the cellular. In a similar manner, the violence that morphine-sickness brings to another Lee associate, Roy, is positioned in the narrative directly after Jack’s homicide story, in which he admits to bashing someone’s head with a pipe. Violence, signifying death, is positioned before Roy’s junk-sickness, signifying rot. The circumstances of Lee’s narrative follow natural cycles of death, renewal, and life, implying that the spirals of suffering Lee transcends are analogies for the universal suffering and rebirth which transforms all of existence.